There is a place you can go every other week and watch live stand-up comedy where there’s no risk of catching COVID-19. You do not have to wear a mask. You can watch a group of comedians all in the same space, clapping and laughing for one another, and you can hear other members of the audience laughing (or not) at the jokes. Comedians — including Jenny Yang, Judah Friedlander, Yedoye Travis, and Ify Nwadiwe — have done sets there; the July 3 show will include Cristela Alonzo, Andrew Orolfo, and Danielle Perez. That place is Jenny Yang’s comedy show Comedy Crossing, and it takes place on a remote island in the video game Animal Crossing.
I’m one of the millions of people who have spent a good long time in the world of Animal Crossing over the last few months, and when I heard about Yang’s show, I was both fascinated and completely unsure how it would work. Animal Crossing has an appealing, sweet visual style and an addictive catalogue of cute items to collect, but the premise of the game involves clearing and organizing a deserted island, gradually turning it from a wilderness into a little village. It isn’t designed to be a hub where lots of people can communicate with one another, and although you can go visit other people’s islands, the chat system is fiddly and unbearably slow. One person’s island can only host up to eight online visitors at a time. Nothing about it screams “great location for a comedy show.”
But when Yang first started playing the game a few months ago, she could immediately see the potential. Like everyone else, she downloaded Animal Crossing not long after the country shut down. “It was a sad quarantine purchase,” Yang says, laughing. “I got the game because I was so sad.” But before long, “it very quickly dawned on me that I could try to re-create all the places I missed in real life, including a comedy club.”
At the same time, while Yang began collecting items and modeling her virtual island after the L.A. she missed (she also has a LACMA lights installation and a Hollywood Forever Cemetery), she started participating in some of the comedy Zoom shows popping up to fill the void of live, in-person comedy. Yang started paying attention to what seemed to work and what didn’t in those shows. “There were a lot of Instagram Lives, a lot of variations [on the format],” she says. Eventually, comedians began to land on a structure that sort of worked: Zoom shows with at least a few audience members unmuted to help re-create the experience of a reactive audience. “If you know that your room is quiet, if you want to laugh and be part of making the show a show, unmute yourself,” she explains. “If you have even five people who are unmuted, it’s already 100 percent better than telling your jokes into a hallway of nothing.”
The problem is that as an interface and visual experience, Zoom comedy shows are not ideal. They’re exhausting, and because they’ve become so ubiquitous in corporate culture, they now feel more like a workplace rather than entertainment. So Yang built a comedy club in her virtual Animal Crossing basement, a room complete with brick walls, a microphone, and a little greenroom space off to the side. And then, she got to work on Comedy Crossing, a live show combining Zoom call mechanics with Animal Crossing aesthetics.
It works like this: Yang invites other comedians with Animal Crossing accounts onto her island, hosts them in her adorable basement comedy club, and streams the feed from her Nintendo Switch onto a computer screen where a bigger audience can watch it live over Zoom. When it’s their turn to perform, each comedian walks their game avatar up onto the little stage and stands behind a microphone. As the comedians perform their material over Zoom, they can also manipulate their in-game characters. The cute little Animal Crossing people make reactions like delight or expressions of alarmed surprise to coordinate with joke setups and punch lines. Yedoye Travis was particularly adept at this in the first show, and several of the comedians used the game’s magic-wand item to incorporate elaborate instantaneous costume changes into their material.
While one comedian performs, other comedians in the room can respond with clapping, dismay, or other goofy and encouraging reactions. And to the audience members watching over Zoom, the whole thing looks remarkably like watching a cartoon version of a live stand-up comedy show. “It strangely transports you,” Yang says.
There are technical challenges, of course. The Animal Crossing character-reaction interface is not easy, and it’s tricky getting the timing right so they match up perfectly with a punch line. Some of the comedians are more adept with the game than others — in the most recent show, for instance, Danielle Radford’s avatar began accidentally wandering around the room. If comedians let their game consoles go idle while watching other people perform, Animal Crossing’s extremely awkward group-play interface forces the whole game to quit and reload. (This has happened more than once in a Comedy Crossing show, and every time as the game reloads, Yang and the other guests are full of half-joking accusations and recriminations. “Who did it!” “Was it me??” “Oh noooo …”)
But the biggest hurdle is one Yang has already found a fix for: She wanted to include comedians who don’t play Animal Crossing. So for her second show, she invited Judah Friedlander, who has no experience with the game, and she got fellow comedian and Animal Crossing player Amber Preston to act as his in-game stand-in. Yang talked with Friedlander about the look of the character and gave Preston the game items she’d need to cosplay as him during the show, including a big baseball hat and a brown beard. They also discussed the expression Preston would need to make during Friedlander’s set, because Friedlander pointed out that the default character face is “too pleasant” for his act.
When it was showtime, Yang introduced Friedlander and Preston as his in-game stand-in, and as Friedlander did material on the coronavirus and Tom Hanks’s career, Preston pretended to be him in the game, standing behind the mic and making sure the avatar wore an expression of resigned disgust. If anything, the strange three-person puppeteering process only added to how funny the whole thing was. “It was a weird, strange, fun, collaborative experience to go through with the comedians,” Yang says, laughing.
Yang has no desire for these shows to replace in-person comedy; even in Animal Crossing form, Yang says, “it is a lesser experience; there’s no denying it.” She knows comedians who have just refused to do any kind of digital performances, and she says she understands that: “That’s a choice they’re making, and I think it’s fair.” As comedians, though, “we’re going to have to have a conversation about what we’re willing to accept about how we’re going to transmit our comedy.” For now, Comedy Crossing is a surprisingly effective alternative.
Yang isn’t sure how long she’ll continue producing these shows, but she’s been thrilled with how well the first two shows have gone and is excited about doing more of them. What she hears from the audience members, Yang says, is that these shows have been “probably the most joy they experienced since the pandemic started.” Each of the first two shows has had about 200 people in the audience, and because the show is free, Yang has been able to give audience donations, over $2,000 so far, to mutual aid funds and Black Lives Matter movements.
She hopes future shows will be an opportunity to bring in more new comedians and guests. There’s a pink phone on the table in Comedy Crossing, a phone Yang calls the “Chrissy Teigen phone.” “She would be a dream guest in the audience,” Yang says. “That’s a goal … she can just be in the audience! Visit my island! I would for sure wrap up some gifts to give her.” (When I asked her what she’d give Teigen in Animal Crossing, Yang quickly proposed one of the highly desirable astrological furniture items, like the Taurus closet or bathtub: “I need to give her that primo shit.”) But Comedy Crossing has already achieved what Yang set out for it to do. “Everything felt so dreary,” Yang says, and these shows have been a real bright spot in the last few months. “It feels so joyful to tell jokes in this way, and frankly to gather more community. That’s part of the joy and why I do comedy.”